This Sunday (10/28/12) I will preach my final sermon from John’s Apocalypse—the Book of Revelation.[1] We will cover chapters 21-22. This will be the ninth sermon in this series. I covered the entire apocalypse, with the exception of chapters 15-16, in just nine sermons. Wow. I didn’t think I could do it, but I did.

Upon careful scrutiny, the artistic beauty and structural genius of John’s masterpiece come to the forefront. It truly is a magnificent work of art. Here is a look at the structure of the drama:

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Act One:

1. The Prologue, 1:1-20.

2. Scene One: The Church in Imperfection – The Seven Letters to the Seven Churches, 2:1 – 3:22.

3. Scene Two: The Authority of God over Evil Explained – The Seven Seals on the Scroll, 4:1 – 8:6.

4. Scene Three: The Warning Judgments – The Seven Trumpets, 8:1 – 11:19.

Act Two:

* Center Scene: The Lamb, God’s Answer to Evil – The Seven Unnumbered Figures and Angelic Messages, 12:1 – 14:20.

4. Scene One: The Consummated Judgments – The Seven Bowls of Wrath, 15:1 – 16:21.

3. Scene two: The Authority of God over Evil Exercised – 7 Descriptions of God’s Authority, 17:1 – 20:15.

2. Scene Three: The Church in Perfection, 21:1 – 22:5.

1. The Epilogue, 22:6-21.

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I can’t get the editor on this blog page to cooperate, but if I could, I would progressively indent each scene in the two acts so that you would notice that the structural frame forms the left-hand side of the letter “X.” This is called chiasm, from the Greek word for the letter “X” – chi. John has created a chiasmus with the structure of his apocalypse.

The drama is presented in two acts: act one is comprised of chapters 1-11; act two is comprised of chapters 12-22.

Notice how each scene in act one moves us toward the center scene—chapters 12-14. This is the center of the drama and the heart of John’s message: the Lamb of God is God’s answer to evil.

Then notice how each scene in act two mirrors—in reverse order—each scene in act one. Again, this is artistic genius at its finest.

Recognizing this structure helps in the interpretation of the work. For example, much debate and speculation surrounds chapters 21-22. There John describes the holy city with its gates of pearl and its streets of gold (21:21).[2]

Is this a description of heaven? Many people believe so. I have sung many songs about heaven’s streets of gold and I have heard many jokes that begin at the “pearly gates” of heaven. Saint Peter is there with the keys into heaven and the authority to allow us in or deny us access.

But if this is a description of heaven, then it is a very awkward one. Why? Because the city John describes is “coming down out of heaven” (21:2). How is that possible?

And, this city is referred to as “a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (21:2). That sounds like the church, doesn’t it?[3]

So is this a description of heaven or is it a description of the church? Which is it?

I am convinced that it is the church, not heaven. How can I be so sure? By carefully looking at the structure of John’s work.

In act one, scene one (chapters 2-3), what is John talking about? The church. No question about that.

Now look at the scene in act two that mirrors act one, scene one. Remember, act two progresses in reverse order; therefore, the corresponding scene in act two will be the final scene—chapters 21-22.

What is John talking about in the final scene of act two? Well, maybe heaven and maybe the church, for many it is not 100% clear. There are arguments that cut both ways.

But for my thinking, examining John’s structure removes any ambiguity. In both acts John is talking about the church. In act one, he is talking about the church in a state of imperfection; in act two, he is talking about the church in its perfection. Any ambiguity is eliminated once John’s structural framework is brought to bear on the question.


[1] The title is singular, Revelation, not plural, Revelations. Sorry, just a minor, technical pet peeve of mine.

[2] In fact, John says that there is only one street—singular—that is made of gold. He doesn’t mention any other streets.

[3] See Matthew 9:15, John 3:29, Romans 7:4, 1 Corinthians 6:15, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Ephesians 5:22-33 for examples of Jesus being referred to as the “bridegroom” and his people, the church, being called his “bride.”

Artwork by Pat Marvenko Smith, copyright 1992. From the series “Revelation Illustrated.” Used by permission. It is available in fine art prints and visual teaching materials. Call 1-800-327-7330 for a free brochure or visit her web site at http://www.revelationillustrated.com.

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Inside the New Jerusalem

My preaching ministry has me in the middle of a nine-sermon series from John’s Apocalypse–the Book of Revelation. My teaching ministry has me teaching Isaiah for the second quarter in a row.

Obviously, I have run up against the biblical teaching on “last things”–eschatology for the theologians and seminarians.

Many scholars assert that the Bible does not present a consistent picture of what will happen at the end of time.

  • Some argue that the gospels do not coincide with what Paul presents.
  • Others claim that John is in opposition to Paul.
  • Some even argue that Paul is not consistent with Paul! (e.g., his eschatology in 1 Thessalonians is different from his eschatology in 2 Thessalonians).

I can’t sort out all the nuances of each school of thought but this is clear: no consensus exists among biblical scholars regarding Scripture’s presentation of the end of time.

And this is equally clear: the average person sitting on the pew thinks very little about the nuances of the issue. The basic understanding of many Christians seems to be:

  1.  Christ will return,
  2. The dead in Christ will rise first,
  3. Then those who are left alive will be gathered together
  4. And all will be taken up “in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1Thessalonians 4:17, NIV).

End of story. Seems pretty clear. What’s the problem?

Jesus confirms this in John 14:1-3 when he says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

Finally, Peter weighs in on the conversation to tell us what will become of the earth: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10, ASV).

So Plato and all those Greek philosophers were correct. Our bodies die, decay, and are never more. Our souls go to heaven to live with Jesus forever and this nasty ol’ material creation is disposed of as it should be. End of story; what’s the problem?

Well, the biblical story is not that clear cut.

First, according to the New Testament, our physical bodies are going to be raised from death, just as Jesus’ physical body was raised (1 Corinthians 15). Second, there are a number of passages that talk about a “new heaven and a new earth.”

Take the 2 Peter passage as an example—the classic proof-text for a “the world is going to be burned up” position on the matter. If we keep reading, just two verses later we see that “according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” (2 Peter 3:13, ASV).

Isaiah talks about a new heaven and new earth that follows God’s judgment (Isaiah 65:17, 66:22).

John does too in his Apocalypse. In fact, the new heaven and the new earth is the precise climax to which John leads the reader of Revelation (see Revelation 21).

According to these passages, the hope we have is not to wind up floating around the clouds in a vaporous realm in the sweet by and by, but rather an entirely new creation in which God’s perfection finally prevails (“wherein dwelleth righteousness,” to quote Peter again).

So where do a new body, a new heaven, and a new earth fit into the mainstream Christian understanding that at the end of time our bodies go into the ground, our souls go to heaven, and all matter will be destroyed? That we go to live with God in a non-material realm and leave this terrible place in the far reaches of our memories?

And what exactly does Paul mean when he says, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God”? (Romans 8:19-21, NIV).

That sounds a whole lot like a new earth following God’s judgment, which would be consistent with other passages on the subject.

At this point I have more questions than answers. And I have a much deeper appreciation for those scholars who wrestle with this and come away scratching their heads.

I remember a Bible teacher many years ago telling us his view:

  1. We will get new bodies at the resurrection
  2. In those bodies we will go to heaven to live with God forever
  3. God will then re-create the earth
  4. So we can all sit around in heaven and watch re-runs.

At the time I thought he was joking. Now I’m thinking, “Maybe not. Maybe he is on to something.”

Artwork by Pat Marvenko Smith, copyright 1992. From the series “Revelation Illustrated.” Used by permission. It is available in fine art prints and visual teaching materials. Call 1-800-327-7330 for a free brochure or visit her web site at http://www.revelationillustrated.com.

The more I study Scripture the more it fascinates me. Lately I have once again become enthralled with John’s Revelation. What is it? Why is it in the Bible? What did it mean to John’s readers/hearers? How should we read it? What should we do with it? Is it only about the end of the world? Is it about the end of the world at all? I have many more questions than I have answers. Yet, my curiosity remains.

Here is what I do know.

Since God is the Creator of all things He ought to be served by that which He created. This is the overarching theme of the seven letters to the churches, the rest of Revelation, and of the entire Bible. YHWH is God and He alone ought to be served wholeheartedly by all creatures. Failure to do so will result in judgment—in time and at the end of time.

All churches tend to drift in our focus. It is so easy, and so human, to turn from Jesus Christ and Him crucified and all that that amazing event implies for the human family. Our passion for our mission degrades into mere maintenance of the church. Church structure and doctrinal nit picking take precedence over incarnational church life. Reckless, heart-felt adoration of God and loving service to others are replaced by cold, rigid policing of the ranks. The warmth, beauty, and freedom that come from God’s redemption all give way to hyper-technical gate-keeping. This has been the curse of the Christian Church from its inception.

One of the central themes, then, of the seven letters to the seven churches in Revelation is to point this tendency out. Jesus wants to prevent it from happening in every church and He demands repentance from it in any church where it has raised its ugly head. Failure to repent results in judgment; the church of Christ no longer functions as the church of Christ because it is not the church of Christ—it is the church of something else.

The purpose of the seven letters of Revelation (2:1 – 3:22) is to get the disciples to put into practice the full implications of the fact that YHWH is God. He and He alone is to be served by His creatures. And He is to be served wholeheartedly, not merely halfway. According to the seven letters, each disciple must repent from everything that prevents this type of service to God.

Given the impending crisis about to break in upon the disciples of Asia, the seven letters alert the disciples to the urgency of an immediate, penetrating, and ruthless self-assessment of their faith and commitment. According to the seven letters to the seven churches, God ought to be served wholeheartedly by His creation—or not at all.

That is what I know.

 

Art used by Pat Marvenko Smith, copyright 1992. To order prints visit her “Revelation Illustrated” site, http://revelationillustrated.com.

Scenes from Revelation 029

The word theodicy was coined by the 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. It describes the process of seeking to logically vindicate the goodness, power, and justice of God in spite of the fact that he created a world in which evil exists.

The Bible nowhere offers humanity a true theodicy. However, Revelation offers insight into the problem. According to the text, God has made an escape for human beings in the midst of this evil world. Escape from the power of evil is provided through the loving grace and forgiveness of God which, in turn, is provided for by his eternal plan of salvation that culminated in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The theodicy of Revelation approaches its climax in 12:1 – 14:20 as it sets its focus upon the Lamb of God and the crushing defeat of evil. Following his defeat, Satan turns to wage war on the messianic community on earth. Disciples conquer the same way Jesus conquered: by faithfully testifying to God’s plan even if it requires death.

The final judgment scene of Revelation 20:11-15 serves as a fitting closing statement about God’s authority over evil, a final dropping of the curtain. In this section John also brings his theodicy to a conclusion. Evil is finally and permanently destroyed, God is vindicated, and those who choose to serve him are declared victorious.

Revelation offers a hope like no other New Testament writing. God is in control of history guiding it to a predetermined conclusion. Human beings of all ages are commanded to reject the values of their culture, to trust God, and to obey God as he works his redemptive plan out in history. Such loyalty to God may cost disciples their lives; however, the resurrection assures us that even though we may be martyred in this world we are still more than conquerors.

This theodicy may not satisfy everyone but it is the biblical answer to the problem of evil. Jesus has conquered and now reigns. To conquer with him we must give up being earth dwellers and, instead, become loyal citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven—no matter the consequences.